Is this finally the year for Northwestern?

Is this finally the year for Northwestern?

Published Jan. 17, 2012 5:13 p.m. ET

The tone in Bill Carmody's voice is cordial, not combative, even though he knows the question that's been asked presumably a thousand times will be posed for the 1,001st occasion.

It centers on the two words that have haunted Northwestern's men's basketball program for eight decades now — two words that Carmody hopes will stop being used as a punch line in conjunction with his team sometime soon: "NCAA Tournament."

Carmody, Northwestern's 12th-year coach, understands the facts as well as anyone: The Wildcats are the only BCS school never to have qualified for the NCAA Tournament, despite having hosted the very first championship game in 1939. Seventy-three times since the advent of college basketball's most prestigious postseason event, they have played a basketball season in Evanston, Ill., and 73 times, the school's invitation to the Big Dance has been lost in transit.

So, yes, Carmody knows this interview is headed down a well-traveled path he'd just as soon not take again. There are 346 Division I teams, he says, and the goal of all of them is to reach the 68-team NCAA Tournament.

Does he ever tire of answering questions as to when Northwestern will finally qualify, too?

"Of course," Carmody says. "All the time. I'm not enjoying you even asking me, to be straight with you. It's there for everyone to see."

Under Carmody's watch, the program has inched ever closer to achieving its postseason goal, however elusive it still appears.

In the past three seasons, Northwestern has wedged its way into the NCAA Tournament discussion, only to fall short in the final weeks. Each March, the Wildcats instead have qualified for the less prestigious National Invitation Tournament — although that certainly represents a step up from past seasons, when the program didn't even finish with a winning record.

During the past three years, Northwestern has won 57 games, the most for any three-year stretch in program history.

And this season, Northwestern (12-5, 2-3 in Big Ten play) is once again on the cusp of breaking through, particularly after a marvelous 81-74 upset of perennial conference power Michigan State on Saturday. When Northwestern travels to face Wisconsin (14-5, 3-3) on Wednesday, the Wildcats will be trying to further improve their NCAA Tournament resume.

With 13 regular-season games remaining and a realistic opportunity to snap a 73-year drought ahead of them, players are contemplating the potential significance of this season.

"A lot of guys kind of think about it, even if you're just laying in bed thinking about the possibility of making the tournament," Northwestern guard Drew Crawford says. "Just the magnitude of such a great event. We're watching it every year, and it's tough to see we're not in it every year. I think it'd be a huge thing for our school, for our program, for Northwestern athletics in general. It'd be huge."

An unkind history

For a brief stretch in the 1930s, Northwestern was considered a formidable college basketball program. The Wildcats even captured a national title in 1931 — the Helms Athletic Foundation, created in 1936, retroactively named Northwestern the champion after it finished the season 16-1. The Wildcats won the Big Ten title that season, and in 1933, they won another conference championship.

It would be their last.

The rest of Northwestern's basketball history is littered with disappointment and underachievement.

Northwestern's program has lost around 420 more games than it has won in its history. No coach has left with a winning record since Arthur Lonborg in 1950, and he is the only coach out of 23 to have led the Wildcats to a conference title, winning the two in the early '30s.

Since Lonborg left as the winningest coach in program history, Northwestern has played 61 seasons. Forty-five of those seasons have ended with a losing record. Most notoriously, the Wildcats compiled a 17-145 record in Big Ten play during a nine-year stretch in the 1980s and '90s

These numbers mean little to Carmody other than the fact that they perpetuate the notion that the program is inept.

Carmody likes to say that none of his current players cares about the past. They weren't around for the lean years, and most recruits believe they can be the difference in putting Northwestern over the top.

He adds that significant renovations to the football and basketball venues in recent years also have made the university a more attractive option for recruits.

In 2007, Northwestern spent $4.5 million to remodel locker areas for the basketball team, adding player lounges, flat-screen televisions and auditorium-sized classrooms for team meetings. This season, the Welsh-Ryan Arena court underwent a stylish makeover, with purple filling the inside of the 3-point arcs.

"Now, we've hired marketing people, we're spending more money on different things," Carmody says. "There has to be upgrades in facilities. They're on board for doing that. Because it's so competitive. You have to be able to compete for players.

"It's hard, but you can get past the lack of success traditionally here if you measured up in all the other things. Because my feeling is when kids come here, they don't care what happened 15 years ago."

Oddly enough, Crawford admits the fact that Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament can actually be an appealing sell to potential recruits — himself included.

"That was a major factor for me," says Crawford, a Naperville, Ill., native. "I know I can speak for a couple of my other teammates, too, in saying that's one of the reasons they wanted to come here was to have a chance to make history for this school and athletics program. That's something we think about all the time and one of the reasons we came here. We have to go out here and achieve it."

Changing expectations

So why will this season be any different at Northwestern?

For starters, the Wildcats possess the best 1-2 scoring combination in the Big Ten in 6-foot-9 senior forward John Shurna and Crawford, a 6-5 junior. The duo give Northwestern a fighting chance in any game because of both players' innate ability to score in a variety of ways.

Shurna, from Glen Ellyn, Ill., averages 19.1 points per game, while Crawford adds 17.6. Shurna dropped in 37 points against LSU this season and later tied the school record by drilling nine 3-pointers against Eastern Illinois. Crawford lit up nationally ranked Creighton for 34 points and has scored 20 in back-to-back games against Michigan and Michigan State.

"They can score inside, outside and both have pull-up jumpers," Carmody says. "They're not really limited too much. You get too close, and they can get by you. If you're not close enough, they can knock down shots. They're hard matchups."

Shurna and Crawford combined for 42 points in Northwestern's season-changing victory against Michigan State on Saturday, which snapped the Spartans' 15-game winning streak and vaulted the Wildcats back into the NCAA Tournament discussion.

Northwestern had appeared destined for another disappointing season after consecutive losses to Illinois and Michigan by a combined three points.

"It was definitely a big win for us," Shurna says of the win over the Spartans. "I think a big thing is just consistency for us. We've got to make sure we're playing right and doing well right off the bat, giving good energy and making sure we play hard all 40 minutes. We've been in games and let up a couple big plays that have cost us."

With the end of the regular season in sight, Northwestern seems to have its best opportunity to reach the NCAA Tournament in quite some time. The Wildcats own impressive victories against Seton Hall and Michigan State, rank in the top 10 nationally in strength of schedule and the top 30 in the Ratings Percentage Index, a measure used to help determine which teams make the NCAA Tournament.

What makes this season's run so much more impressive than years past is that, beyond Shurna and Crawford, Carmody is playing with a makeshift lineup that includes freshman Dave Sobolewski and former walk-on Reggie Hearn in the backcourt thanks to a rash of injuries.

Sophomore guard JerShon Cobb, a projected starter, injured his hip last season and, despite an operation, hasn't healed the way Carmody had hoped. Freshman guard Tre Demps is out for the season after suffering a torn labrum during the summer. Junior guard Alex Marcotullio has battled a toe injury and will miss Wednesday's game against Wisconsin with a concussion.

"Depth has always been a factor, I think, with Northwestern," Carmody says. "You know with the good teams, bad guys are good. With us, there's a drop-off. I didn't think there would be this year, but with three guys that can't play, it changes the way you coach and go about your business.

"But I think we still have some life left in us."

Despite the setbacks, Northwestern has reached January once again on the cusp of being invited to the Big Dance. And after playing in three straight NITs, players have their sights firmly set on the larger goal.

If that occurs, Carmody and the rest of the Wildcats hope they'll be answering a different question once mid-March arrives.

What does it feel like to play in the NCAA Tournament?

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